Life, Liberty, and Fine Chocolate

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image by Eric Miller / www.eric.co.za

On a small Atlantic island on the equator, in a lemon-colored bungalow with a clear view over a tinfoil bay, lives the Italian honorary consul. In his driveway are two ancient Fiat Pandas. In his back garden is a chocolate factory. The consul’s name is Claudio Corallo. He is 58 and lean, with close-cropped, neat gray hair, a matching mustache, and an inventor’s lively eyes. He speaks five languages fluently, and English sparingly and excitedly.

“Paradise!” and “Magic!” are a few of his stock words; they could describe the allure of the rainforest or the transformation of the humble cocoa bean into fine chocolate. “Shameless!” and “Shit!” are other favorites; they might refer to the marketing gimmicks of some of his competitors or the state of Western society.

For the past decade, Corallo has been on a quest to produce some of the finest dark chocolate in the world. His bars, which range in cocoa content from 70 percent to 100 percent, and may contain ginger, arabica coffee beans, orange rind, or plump raisins soaked for months in his homemade cocoa-pulp alcohol, sell for between $12 and $14 for 100 grams in Europe, the United States, and Japan.

That puts Corallo in the same market as the world’s leading gourmet chocolate makers. Yet he has little in common with them.

For one thing, Corallo makes his chocolate at, or at least very near, the source–on São Tomé, off the west coast of Africa, population 150,000. Equally unusually, he controls the entire process, from the tree to the bar.

Most fine-chocolate makers buy their cocoa from farmers thousands of miles away. Corallo grows his own cocoa on a 300-acre plantation on Príncipe, the twin island of São Tomé, 90 miles to the northeast, where he spends part of each month living in a tumbledown colonial-era house with no power, no hot water, and an air-conditioning system that involves leaving all the windows open.

And then there is his attitude toward life and business. Corallo describes himself as “a free man, an anarchist” and counts among his closest friends a Basque man exiled to São Tomé two decades ago because of his alleged links to the terrorist organization ETA. Though he wants people to eat his chocolate, Corallo abhors having to persuade customers to buy it. He lost a contract with a major British retailer a few years ago principally because he refused to make fancy wrappers.

“I hate compromise,” he says. “And marketing is compromise.”

Even today, the simple packaging on his bars contains only his name and his chocolate’s place of origin. There is little hint of his story.

As a boy growing up in Florence, Corallo dreamed of forests. He studied tropical agronomy after school. When he was 23, he moved to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) to work for the government as an agricultural researcher. The job did not inspire him, but the jungle did.

Five years later, he bought a run-down, 3,000-acre coffee farm in Lomela, in the center of the country. “It was a paradise. Shorts, shirt, no shoes, machete. All you needed to live,” says Corallo.

He ignored the textbooks on coffee cultivation, relying instead on trial and error. His methods ranged from the strange–talking to his pack cows rather than using whips–to the improvisational–using lianas from the forest rather than nails to join fence poles. He sent his robusta beans to Kinshasa using a modified barge.

By 1989 he was making good money and employed more than 1,000 workers. He had a wife, Bettina, and a daughter, Ricciarda. But the country was growing unstable, and by late 1996, when rebel forces began marching toward Kinshasa, signaling the end of the Mobutu era, Corallo knew that his time in Lomela was coming to an end. He wanted to stay in central Africa. And he wanted to farm.

After much searching, he found and purchased a long-abandoned plantation, a remnant from Príncipe’s cocoa-producing heyday in the 1800s. Located on the island’s humid coast, it had a colonial house that had gone to ruin, and many of its 20,000 cocoa trees had been hidden by a resurgent jungle.

On the beach Corallo built a wooden bungalow for his young family, which now included two boys, Niccolò and Amedeo, and they began to clear the plantation. He was confident that he could farm cocoa successfully. But could he also turn it into fine chocolate?

Although the plantation had old cocoa trees of a quality superior to that of the more recently introduced hybrids found on mainland Africa, they were still forasteros–the most common of the three varieties of cocoa, and the blandest in taste. The finest dark chocolate is often made from trinitario or rare criollo beans.

Corallo was undaunted. He believed he could make up for the beans’ inherent limitations by applying the same commitment that winemakers and olive growers show their crops–the sort of attention rarely seen in the world of chocolate.

“Good chocolate is not necessarily a problem of variety,” he says. “It is a problem of work.”

One morning at 6 a.m., Corallo picked me up at my guesthouse in São Tomé, the islands’ capital city. He wore his usual uniform: old polo shirt, a cheap Casio digital watch, well-worn moccasins, and faded Bermuda shorts. Hanging from a green string on his belt was a tiny Swiss army knife.

He was driving his dark green Panda, which he bought in Italy and shipped to São Tomé. Most expatriates here drive expensive 4x4s.

 “Even if I was offered a Mercedes I would keep the Panda,” he says. “Big cars, mobile phones, watches, clothes. They are for people who want to fill their emptiness with nothing.”

We headed away from the Atlantic Ocean, toward the smoky mountains that loom over the town. After half an hour we had traveled 11 miles and ascended nearly 3,300 feet to reach Corallo’s Nova Moca farm on São Tomé, which doubles as a coffee plantation and an extension of his chocolate factory. On terraced fields either side of an old abandoned farmhouse grew seven different varieties of arabica, robusta, and liberica coffee.

The trees give him a small, high-quality crop that is sold only in Portugal. Cocoa is what makes the money.

On the plantation on neighboring Príncipe, Corallo’s workers cut the ripe, melon-shaped cocoa pods from the trees using machetes and crack them open with sticks to extract the beans. Nearby small-scale farmers who share his farming philosophy sell him their cocoa, as he pays much more than brokers in São Tomé.

Convention suggests that forastero beans should be fermented–a process that gives them their chocolate taste–for about six days. Corallo’s own trials suggested that six days was not enough; instead, he ferments his beans for well over two weeks.

The traditional way to dry the beans after fermentation is to lay them in the sun. Corallo spreads the beans over a platform of heated clay tiles or places them in a huge aerated cylinder that a friend built for him in Italy.

Once the beans are dried, they are packed aboard an old fishing trawler for the six-hour journey to São Tomé. They are then transported to Nova Moca for cleaning and sorting, roasted in Corallo’s factory at his beachfront house, and returned to the coffee plantation.

Under a covered platform, with the ocean shimmering in the distance, stood several long wooden tables. Thirty men and women, all wearing white overcoats, hairnets, and face masks, sat with a pile of cocoa beans in front of each of them.

Carefully they stripped each bean of its outer shell and discarded the tiny, acrid germ, leaving just the cocoa nibs. This process, winnowing, is usually done by machine, but Corallo believes that the quality of the chocolate suffers as a result. At peak times there are 60 people on shelling duty, each earning what is, by local standards, a decent wage.

From Nova Moca, the nibs are returned to the four-room factory in Corallo’s backyard, where workers use fans to blow away any residual dust clinging to the nibs. The nibs are then ground by machine into cocoa liquor. After a few other refinements–some of them secret–the cocoa is ready to be turned into chocolate.

Later the same day, I visited the factory, following the aroma of dark chocolate from the driveway. Workers were scurrying around with trays of chocolate ready for cutting and packaging. Corallo, meanwhile, was eating–and drinking–into his profits. He had already guzzled “about 30” samples of his newest creation: chocolate balls featuring a core of two grams of ginger inside a layer of 100 percent cocoa.

He had also taken several sips of his prized alcohol, a chest-warming drink with a rich, fruity aftertaste. It is made from the sticky white pulp that surrounds the cocoa beans inside the pod and that is discarded by most farmers. As with his coffee, the yield is tiny–one liter for every ton of beans–making commercial production impossible. Instead, he soaks raisins in the alcohol before hiding them inside fat, 50-gram chunks of dark chocolate. It is easily his best-selling product.

After a decade on the island, Corallo is well known and respected. One afternoon I was interviewing Rafael Branco, a former foreign minister, when Corallo’s name came up. “You see the car he drives, the simple way he lives, the things he does for this country? Don’t give us aid–give us 10 clones of Corallo,” says Branco.

In the gourmet chocolate industry, Corallo remains the quirky outsider and has yet to gain the recognition he feels his chocolate merits.

Chloé Doutre-Roussel, a fine-chocolate expert who introduced Corallo’s bars to Britain when she was at Fortnum & Mason, says that while Corallo’s chocolate is good, it is not the finest. However, she admires his tenacity and honesty. Some chocolate makers concoct less-than-truthful stories about the origins of their beans and the degree of care taken in production. Corallo, on the other hand, refuses to use positive labels he might easily adopt, such as “organic” and “slow food.”

“He is the complete opposite of the sharks who use marketing to fool customers into buying their chocolate,” says Doutre-Roussel. “He is in his own world, conducting this experiment with a wonderful obsession.”

But an obsession can be draining. One evening, Corallo told me that for the first time in years he was feeling exhausted. Last year he and Bettina were divorced. She still handles the distribution side of the business from Lisbon, where she now lives with Ricciarda, but her absence is keenly felt.

After Bettina left, Corallo asked his son Niccolò, now a tall, mild-mannered 19-year-old, to postpone his final year of schooling to help him manage the business. It is not something he is proud of.

“I am now the number one for child labor–my own son,” he says. “But without Niccolò I could not do this.”

Later that night, when he took Niccolò and Amedeo, 15, out to dinner at a seafront restaurant, Corallo perked up, excitedly picking out the Big Dipper in the sequined sky.

He talked about the future. He aims to buy more of his ingredients locally, which should help the other farmers on Príncipe. Already he has got some of them growing ginger, and he hopes to get cane sugar from them, too.

If that happens, he might try to make rum. Exporting smoked fish is another option. In a few years, if things improve in Congo, he might even be able to spend part of his time on his old coffee farm in Lomela, close to the jungle of his childhood dreams.

As he says, “My heart belongs in the middle of the forest.”

Excerpted from New Statesman(Jan. 15, 2009), Britain’s award-winning current affairs magazine and a 2009 Utne Independent Press Award nominee for general excellence; www.newstatesman.com.

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